Police at ground zero for the Sinaloa cartel’s battle of succession are outgunned and overwhelmed

Mexico Sinaloa state Culiacan shooting killings violence
A Mexican marine looks at the body of a gunman next to a vehicle after a gun fight in Culiacan, the Sinaloa state capital, February 7, 2017. (AP Photo/Rashide Frias)

Since once powerful Sinaloa cartel kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman was rearrested in January 2016, the cartel’s home turf in Sinaloa state has been embroiled in a steadily escalating battle for succession.

The fight appears to be split among three factions vying for control of the cartel, which is considered one of if not the most powerful criminal organisation in Mexico.

Much of that bloodshed is related to the three factions’ struggle for primacy, and the police and soldiers in Sinaloa charged with bringing it to heel appear to be out manned and out matched.

One faction is led by the recently captured Damaso Lopez Nuñez, a former Sinaloa security official who was Guzman’s right-hand man, who helped the Sinaloa chief escape from prison twice.

Two of Guzman’s sons, Jesus Alfredo and Ivan Archivaldo, lead a second faction, fighting to assume the drug-trafficking throne to which they see themselves as heirs.

Guzman’s brother Aureliano Guzman, aka “El Guano,” leads the third faction and commands the area around the community of Badiraguato in the La Tuna municipality, a rugged area where Guzman and numerous other Mexican kingpins are from.

Mexico Sinaloa Culiacan crime scene soldier military
A Mexican soldier secures the site where two people were shot dead by unidentified attackers in Culiacan, Mexico, February 7, 2017. (AP Photo/Rashide Frias)

Sinaloa state, home to 3 million people, saw a 76% increase in homicides over the first five months of this year compared to last year (though there’s reason to believe government data obscures some homicides).

The state has had 764 homicides through June this year, according to the state security secretariat. That’s the highest rate in six years.

“It’s terror. The word for what is happening in Sinaloa is generalized terror,” Alejandro Sicairos, editor of local magazine Espejo, told AFP.

Sinaloa state homicides 2016 2017

“This hasn’t been the usual kind of shootout,” Sicairos said. “They’re coming with everything they have got: high-calibre weapons, full arsenals, vehicle-mounted artillery.”

Sinaloa’s deputy secretary for security, Cristobal Castañeda, told AFP that the state doesn’t have the resources it needs to fight the criminal groups running roughshod over the area.

There are 5,700 police and soldiers in the state, but international standards say an area Sinaloa’s size should have 9,000, Castañeda said.

Some of the soldiers are tasked with fighting illegal narcotics, including detecting and dismantling the synthetic-drug labs that are increasingly common in the state.

Local police forces, Castañeda added, have insufficient training.

“We are betting heavily on police training to make sure they can operate in full compliance with the rule of law,” he said.

And in Sinaloa, as in much of the country, many of the police in the streets have been found to not be competent for their jobs by the government’s own vetting system.

National-security data gathered by Mexican civil-society organisation Cause en Comun and shared with news outlet Animal Politico shows throughout Mexico, 31,947 security personnel — state, municipal, ministerial, and prison agents — didn’t pass integrity exams, which include reviews of their financial standing as well as psychological evaluations and polygraph tests.

Of those 31,947, 1,312 hold mid- or high-ranking jobs in security bodies.

Those nearly 32,000 police agents are 10% of the national total, up from 9%, or 30,922 police, who had failed those exams as of April 2016.

Earlier this year, government data showed that in 15 of Mexico’s 32 states, the number of state and municipal police who had failed their exams but continued working had gone up — in some places rising from 30% to 50%.

In Sinaloa, more than half of police — 4,140 of 7,903 agents — failed integrity exams. That’s up from 43% last year. Among police bodies in the state, 55% of state police, 46% of municipal police, 43% of judicial agents, and 43% of personnel assigned to penitentiaries did not pass.

Baja California Sur was second — 1,239 of the state’s 3,182 state and municipal police, or 38%, failed their exams. That’s up from 36% last year.

Nearby Nayarit was next, with one in three officers not fit for duty, followed by Sonora, where nearly one-quarter did not pass.

Guerrero had 23% of agents fail the tests and continue to work, while Veracruz had 18%.

Only one Mexican state, Campeche, reported no local police failing the exams.

Federal police and military personnel have assumed the duties of local and municipal police in many of Mexico’s states, and the continued failure of those police forces to pass exams hinders the reconstruction of police at the state level and below.

Issues like corruption play a role in the continued employment of officers unfit for duty — particularly in Sinaloa, where criminal organisations have long had sway — but political factors have also prevented reform and other changes. (Police institutional incapacity is also a driver of Mexico’s sky-high impunity rate.)

Legislative initiatives at the federal level have made no progress. And at the state and local level, political expediency often keeps elected officials from pursuing hard oversight or reform.

“If you are a governor or a mayor, why spend money and political capital on institutional reform if you can call on the Army and the Navy to rescue you when things get really bad (at almost no cost to you)?” Mexican political analyst Alejandro Hope wrote in April 2016.

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